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Winning cures all problems

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April 20

The media is lined up on either side of the gallery like Whigs and Tories, and the players don't really care one way or another about the Bobby Valentine vs. Steve Phillips dispute with the Mets. "Bobby has his agenda, Steve has his agenda," John Franco said before the season began, "and the players think it's pretty fun." That is, as Brian McRae pointed out, "except for those times when their disagreements can be heard outside the manager's office."

Rickey Henderson
Rickey Henderson figures to fill the leadoff and left-field slots for the Mariners.

Some of this could have been avoided had owner Fred Wilpon just extended Bobby Valentine's contract for a year or two at the end of the 1999 season, rewarding Valentine for building the Mets into a playoff team after they had suffered six straight losing seasons before he came aboard. But Wilpon did not, and everyone from Queens to Wharton knows the lack of an extension eats at Valentine, whose human frailty is insecurity that many misread as arrogance.

Everyone at Wharton now knows that Valentine and Steve Phillips are Hillary and Rudy, and no gag gifts will change that. Is Phillips 100 percent right? Of course not. But Bobby isn't 100 percent right, either, although Valentine will get more local media support because he'll campaign cookies to columnists and Phillips never will. Keep that in mind when you read about the subject. Valentine has legitimate beefs about trading Masato Yoshii. which hurt the team's starting pitching depth; Phillips has legitimate beefs about some players that Valentine hasn't wanted.

That's no big deal. Managers and general managers disagree constantly. Jimy Williams gave Mike Stanley enough at-bats last season to qualify Stanley for his 2000 option, when Dan Duquette wanted to go in another direction. Williams didn't want Jon Nunnally, but Duquette grabbed Pete Schourek at the Bradenton waste facility and handed him to his manager to start while moving Tim Wakefield to the bullpen. These disagreements can be worked out.

Valentine's contract demands that he win and win today. Phillips has to take a longer view. He couldn't get Manny Aybar because he couldn't deal Jay Payton or Benny Agbayani, knowing most of his outfield will be free agents at the end of the season. When he talked to the Mariners about Brett Tomko and/or John Halama, he refused to give up prospect Jason Tyner, because many of the Mets people believe Tyner will be an effective major league leadoff hitter. There may be those who feel Phillips doesn't do enough, but no one can satisfy talk show callers and maintain organizational stability, and anyway, if you talk to GMs they'll tell you that no one is more persistent than Phillips.

So can the Mets work things out, as long as their considerable talent plays out? Rickey Henderson may drive the manager crazy, but he can play, produces runs and down the stretch will perform because he's got numerical goals. Rey Ordonez will get over being messed up at the plate. Todd Zeile will be fine at first; he got messed up by trying to play the Keith Hernandez roaming style. Zeile needs to stay at home and learn to avoid the 4-to-1 plays at first base.

But for those who now ridicule the grad student who started Whartongate, understand that the players know Valentine has said some of those things. Zeile is used to it by now; he was criticized in spring training for a play in a split-squad game that Valentine didn't attend and didn't occur the way it was told to the media. The question is whether or not Valentine will slip with what he says. And when it happens again, will this be viewed the way several other general managers see it -- as gross insubordination by an employee against his boss.

New York Post columnist Joel Sherman was right when he wrote that only the lack of a successor has kept Valentine on through all of this. Jim Leyland said this spring that he was burned out and wouldn't enjoy the New York experience one bit. The Mets are not going to bring someone in during the season who doesn't have major league experience, and right now the only possibility is Dodgers coach Glenn Hoffman, who is the anti-Bobby in terms of personality, but is a development person who has previously worked with Mets pitching coach Dave Wallace. Hoffman also learned, coming up in Boston and managing in L.A., what not to say.

Hoffman is not the marquee name that the Mets believe is required should they replace Valentine. And there is no guarantee that he is anywhere near the manager Valentine happens to be.

But they are thinking about it, because the next time there's a Sports Illustrated article or a Whartongate, the Mets believe their house divided could fall apart. Is it Valentine's fault? To some degree. Is it Phillips' fault? Yes, because he should have managed all this better. But, in the end, it's the owner's fault. He has $80-something million tied up in this one-year-only team and left his manager and general manager with their insecurities exposed to the wind.

Juan ... gone?
Juan Gonzalez is telling every opposing player he talks with that he has no intention of signing a long-term contract with the Tigers. Which isn't fair to the Tigers. Before asking where else Gonzalez will ever get $140 million, what about the way the Tigers have treated him? Only like a king.

Juan Gonzalez
Right fielder
Detroit Tigers
8 14 .400.615 .308

OK, it's been very cold in Detroit and the ball hasn't carried at Comerica; let's see how it goes in a couple of months, because a lot of people believe the ball will carry much better as it warms up (hey, look at Seattle -- they moaned last season, but once the Kingdome went down the wind patterns shifted and in warm weather the ball now carries pretty well).

OK, they ran into some bad fortune the last couple of years and didn't move into Comerica with a playoff contender, like the Indians did when they moved into Jacobs Field. But Gonzalez is part of the Tiger perception problem -- while the Giants and Astros are playing to full houses, the Tigers are a disappointing 19th among the 30 teams in average attendance through April 18.

Speaking of vast disappointments, where once the Blue Jays were the first team to draw 4 million fans, they had the fourth-lowest average attendance in baseball. ... Then there are Les Expos. They have no games on local TV. They have no English radio outlet. However, they're still paying legendary radio announcer Dave Van Horne, and if you want to hear his broadcast, go to, scroll up to the Expos and listen on your computer. That's your only way of hearing the exploits of Vladimir Guerrero.

Things we've learned
Granted, it's very early in the season and we normally learn nothing until the marathon hits the five-mile mark in mid-May. But there are three good stories unfurling:

  • The Chicago White Sox. This is a team on the rise because it can flat-out mash. Frank Thomas is back; last year every one of his home runs were pulled, and this season he's hammering balls to the opposite field and pulling the ball on the inside pitch. Ray Durham and Magglio Ordonez are offensive All-Stars who have made themselves better every season. Paul Konerko made adjustments, and is a big-time production hitter. Carlos Lee hits, and so does Greg Norton. They have an outstanding bullpen, with former Brewer No. 1 pick Kelly Wunsch throwing 93-94 mph from his new sidewheeling angle to give them a left-hander.

    Sure, there are some defensive questions on the left side of the field and behind the plate, but Chicago has a young catcher (Josh Paul), third baseman (Joe Crede) and shortstop (Jason Dellaero) on the horizon. And the Sox may have enough offense to carry Dellaero, who has a rocket arm, if he doesn't hit. This is a fun team, like the Royals, and being in Chicago should have enough money to keep the good young players and go out and get a couple of pitchers when and if they're knocking on Cleveland's door.

  • Anaheim's starting pitching. Ken Hill was hit hard Wednesday in Toronto, but going into that game the Angels led the AL in starters' ERA. What's up with that? Scott Schoeneweis, Jason Dickson, Ramon (L'il Pedro) Ortiz and Kent Bottenfield were a combined 7-2. Part of it is that they're better than people thought, as GM Bill Stoneman and manager Mike Scioscia told everyone when all pitchers were spit-roasted in the Arizona sun.

    Part of the success is Scioscia's remarkable understanding of pitching. Part of it is pitching coach Bud Black, who has brought these pitchers to the basics: fastball/changeup to get ahead, then go to breaking balls, because with the current strike zone, it's hard to get breaking balls called for strikes. Another thing: last year, Troy Percival didn't have this kind of command of his breaking ball, and now that he's healthy that low fastball that starts out below the knees and takes off above them is back.

  • Florida's bullpen. In spring training, several baseball people said that one of the biggest surprises in March was just how much good young pitching Dave Dombrowski has stored. Not just Vladimir Nunez and Brad Penny, either. The Fish already had a closer in Antonio Alfonseca after trading Matt Mantei, and adding Dan Miceli gave them experience to go with the young arms like Braden Looper, Vic Darensbourg and Armando Almanza. "They come out with one wave of power after another," says one NL advance scout.

    News and notes

  • The national media may be obsessed with John Rocker, but those around the team believe his relationship with his teammates is better now than it was at the end of last season. "It's like that old, unfortunate adage," says John Schuerholz, "that sometimes a person has to have a heart attack to change him." ... If Bruce Chen, who was throwing the ball very well when he went down, continues to improve his confidence at Richmond and can be the 4-5 starter come June, this can be a very good Braves pitching staff if Rocker can deal with the varied forms of adversity all closers must deal with. Rocker should have a few long talks with John Wetteland, the king of accepting responsibility for everything that happens around him.

  • Brian Bohanon may have lost 20 pounds and had six bone chips removed from his elbow, but allowing 32 barerunners to his first 62 batters tossed him out of the rotation and put him on the claim market. The Rockies explored a Scott Karl-Brian Rose deal with Boston, but the Sox want to give Rose a few more chances. He's always won in the minors, and Wednesday in Detroit stopped throwing across his body and re-located his fastball, his best pitch, down and away from right-handed batters.

  • The Cardinals acknowledge they are very worried about their bullpen between the starters and closer Dave Veres. "We do get Jesse Orosco, Mark Thompson and Scott Radinsky back in the next couple of weeks," says GM Walt Jocketty. "Matt Morris is (back) on rehab, and so now is Alan Benes. We have to give what we have some time. We got beaten up in a one-week trip to Houston and Colorado. Now we see what we have in normal ballparks." Houston and Colorado is a pitcher's trip to hell. ... For those looking up Rockies' homers, their runs per game are up from last season. ... Let's not confuse the Marlins' Almanza with Carlos Almanzar, the 26-year-old Padres reliever who last season allowed 55 earned runs in 60 innings split between San Diego and Las Vegas. His line as of April 20 read: 9 1/3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 K.

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  • Gonzalez denies saying he'll leave Tigers after 1 year

    Gammons: The winning formula
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